Migrant children pushed through immigration court alone as activists scramble to provide legal help

Migrant children pushed through immigration court alone as activists scramble to provide legal help

Originally Published in USA Today

Rick Jervis - March 20, 2021

Roberto Reyes-Perez visits virtually with migrant children housed in federal shelters hour after hour, day after day, explaining their rights in the U.S. immigration system and hearing their stories of gang violence in their home countries or harrowing journeys to reach the U.S.-Mexican border.

"It does not stop," he said. "It's ongoing, every day, every week."

Reyes-Perez, a staff attorney for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Project, or ProBAR, a Harlingen, Texas-based legal advocacy group, is on the front line of efforts to ensure migrant children flooding the border receive legal advice and are better equipped to navigate the U.S. immigration system.

For every migrant minor he advises, several others in federal custody go without any legal counsel, advocates and attorneys said. The children, some as young as 3 years old, are expected to explain why they seek asylum.

Administration officials face pressure from immigration activists to ensure the children have legal representation throughout the process. For the past year, lawyers and legal advocates have used Zoom and other platforms to connect with children held in federal shelters since COVID-19 restrictions mostly barred visitors. The advocates explain their rights and protections to the minors and at times represent them in legal proceedings.

As the number of unaccompanied migrants arriving at the border grows, getting them legal services will become increasingly important, especially as they scatter to different U.S. cities to live with their sponsors, said Elissa Steglich, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.

"It's a real challenge," she said. "Access to legal advocates and representation is critical."

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